Managed Retreat Toolkit

Land Swaps

Introduction to Land Swaps

A land swap is the exchange or “swap” of title to land in perpetuity between two or more property owners. This acquisition tool typically centers on an in-kind exchange of property between parties instead of the purchase of land, although money can supplement in-kind exchanges. Land swaps can take a diversity of forms, involve different numbers and types of property owners, and can be highly complex, but they also provide an effective means of effectuating retreat on a large scale. Land swaps can occur between a government and private landowners, like residents or businesses, or involve other parties or intermediaries, like nonprofits or land trusts. 


Lands Swaps in a Managed Retreat Context

Governments that own public land, including vacant lots, may consider land swaps to implement retreat for different purposes. In a managed retreat context, land swaps can be used for different purposes including to facilitate:

  • Inland wetland mitigation and ecosystem conservation by acquiring priority migration corridors and large, contiguous areas of upland property that are less susceptible to sea-level rise and can be protected in perpetuity (e.g., Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration and Land Swap (Long Beach, California)); or 
  • Affordable housing transitions away from vulnerable coastal areas experiencing sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss by acquiring higher ground capable of supporting safer, thriving communities (e.g., Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, New Orleans Project Home Again Land Swaps).

Depending on the purpose, state and local coastal governments and other nongovernmental partners can design land swaps for retreat in ways that meet community needs. 

While larger size properties are often used to implement land swaps, parcel size alone should not be a determinative factor for decisionmakers evaluating this potential acquisition tool. For example, in Long Beach, California, a public-private land swap is planned that would exchange 154 acres of land currently in private ownership for five acres of publicly owned land. In addition, housing in higher ground receiving areas could be consolidated on denser, upzoned parcels.


Policy Tradeoffs of Land Swaps


  • Governments may have insufficient land to facilitate swaps. They can also involve complex real estate transactions. Governments should consider the size of potential parcels, in addition to the different types of values or benefits land can provide to attract a variety of potential swap participants. 
  • Land swaps can also be politically controversial as residents may be concerned about the transfer and conversion of public to private land. 


  • Land swaps can help governments avoid spending money to buy out property owners in flood-prone areas. 
  • Land swaps can also help ensure that affected residents are able to relocate to higher ground within their existing communities, thereby preserving local tax bases. 
  • Land swaps potentially save governments money overall by avoiding future service, maintenance, infrastructure, and disaster recovery and response costs. 


  • Land swaps can remove existing development and hard, structural barriers to facilitate the inland migration of coastal wetlands and forests that are unable to keep pace with sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and salinization, and a loss of sediment to “adapt-in-place” on the coast. 


  • Compared to buyouts, land swaps can increase participation in acquisitions by reducing uncertainty because property owners are aware of the location of their new property upfront.
  • Larger-scale land swaps implemented to voluntarily relocate residents to higher ground may help communities stay together and preserve social cohesion, compared to having people move individually through standalone buyouts. 


Practice Tips

When implementing land swaps in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips to address and balance different policy tradeoffs: 

  • Structure land swaps in accordance with a community’s specific objectives for managed retreat: The objectives and outcomes of a land swap should guide all elements of a deal, from potential land to be swapped to community members engaged. 
  • Be strategic in selecting local lands to be swapped: Land swaps can be more cost-effective and easier to garner political support if communities and ecosystem benefits are maintained locally or regionally. 
  • Be creative: Land swaps are complex and may require creative approaches to be implemented (e.g., multiple private property owners and multiple parcels, in addition to monetary support, may be needed to implement a land swap).
  • Plan to account for homeowner and housing needs: For land swaps that involve homeowners, ensure that new comparable housing is or can easily be constructed and available within a reasonable amount of time that does not cause undue hardships and moving delays for participants.

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